Why reading Czech is much easier than speaking it

Before I started here at Radio Prague I worked as a translator at CTK, the Czech Republic's only news agency and I still do translations to make a bit of extra cash. I find myself doing the most bizarre translations, often in areas of which I know next to nothing, such as ceramics, the construction industry and, for my sins, Lord of the Rings mobile phone games.

My spoken Czech isn't the best. I can get by of course, but I am by no means fluent. I sometimes say I speak Czech, but not like the Czechs speak it. Many people are surprised when they hear me talking and then find out I translate, and indeed used to do it full time. The reason for that is that there is, in my view, a relatively large gap between being able to understand Czech and being able to speak it. That's because of the dreaded declensions which make learning Czech such hard work. Simply put in English when you know a word, you know it and it doesn't change form, except perhaps in the plural. Because of the seven cases in Czech learning a word is just not enough: if you don't know the ferociously complicated grammar you can't use the word correctly. But you can easily recognise it, whatever the ending, which is why reading - and subsequently translating - is relatively easy.

I know I shouldn't whine about how hard Czech is, but let me give you a few illustrations of how hard Czech is! A friend of mine, a published poet, is very critical of my spoken Czech (though that's unusual: most Czechs seem to be glad any foreigners speak their language at all). One day he was talking about a mate of his who works at the Institute of the Czech Language. He writes Czech well, but his spoken Czech isn't so great, said my friend. My reply was well if you're going to criticise an academic like him, I - a foreigner - might as well forget about learning your crazy language!

Another example: I don't know about you but when I was at school English was one of the easiest subjects. We read novels and had debates and learned very little about grammar, at least directly. Czech, on the other hand, is regarded as the most important subject in school here, and for many pupils is one of the most difficult.

And finally, once or twice a year there is a programme on television called Diktat, or dictation, in which the popular actor Zdenek Sverak reads a text while viewers around the country attempt to take down what he says correctly. The correct text is published in the next day's newspapers and the vast majority of people find they have made at least a few mistakes.